Eric Brandt has a reputation as an envelope-pushing free speech warrior who took delight in needling the authorities. He may be best known for pedaling a bicycle while wearing a display shaped like a bird-flipping hand emblazoned with the slogan "Fuck Cops," but during recent years, he's won two court cases against local suburbs that tried to muzzle him, and the Colorado Supreme Court sided with him in a battle over the distribution of jury-nullification literature that pitted him against Denver District Attorney Beth McCann.
The tables turned on April 1, when McCann's office announced that Brandt had pleaded guilty to three felony counts related to threats against judges — beefs that carried a potential one to six years behind bars. And authorities wasted no time in meting out punishment. On April 26, Brandt was sentenced to a dozen years in stir, during a hearing that was every bit as strange as could have been anticipated.
Thanks to the decision of presiding Denver District Judge Morris Hoffman, the session was streamed online so that Brandt's followers could watch live. They saw Brandt expressing remorse — something exceedingly rare for him — before Hoffman, who's set to retire on April 30 after three decades on the bench, labeled anyone who dismisses what led to Brandt's latest predicament as flat-out crazy.
Or, in the judge's words, "a loon."
An hour before the sentencing, Brandt recorded a brief clip for his YouTube channel in which he admitted that the video could be his last for a long time. But his remarks to Hoffman were clearly a play for a suspended sentence and probation, as opposed to a stint behind bars.
"I think it's obviously an important day and an important question," Brandt said. "First of all, I drove this plea agreement. I want the court to know that. I think that my attorneys did a great job. I think that they mounted a great defense. I think there are perhaps legally defensible questions associated with these cases, and I think that my need to accept accountability to the fact that words do have meaning was outweighing any of those potential legal remedies I might be able to enjoy. And I would argue that I have shown in the last year and a half that I'm capable of toeing the court's line."
He expanded on this last claim by emphasizing that he took part in voluntary behavioral health treatment during his most recent incarceration in Jefferson County. He also pointed out that around the time he issued the threats, he was dealing with illnesses involving both of his parents — "My mother was on a ventilator" — and trying to kick a long-term substance-abuse problem. "I've been sober for nearly two years," he stressed.
In addition, Brandt revealed that he plans to seek a law degree. "I realize it's a large hurdle for someone with a felony conviction, but it's not an impossible hurdle," he said.
After stating his desire to write apology letters to his victims as an example of how he wants to take responsibility for his actions, Brandt stated: "We're not here today because I made case law ensuring that people can distribute literature in front of courthouses. We're not here because I made case law about what fighting words are as it relates to disorderly conduct. I'm not here because I've prevailed on 82 percent of my arrests, which are certainly indicative of misconduct at the police level. ... We're not here today because of my successes. We're here today because I crossed the line. I don't know if I crossed the line legally. My attorneys think we have good defenses. But I think I crossed the line morally."
He continued: "There are lines in the sand. Those lines might not be legal lines. They might be ethical and moral lines that might pass as legal things, but they might not be right." Then, in a comment directed at his supporters, he added, "I really hope that people take from this that you can negate eight years of good activism with a single stroke. ... I do acknowledge and recognize the severity of my words. Words do really hurt."
When it was his turn to speak, Hoffman said he'd never heard of Brandt before being assigned to his case, since he hasn't followed any local media for two decades. He also admitted feeling some discomfort about judging offenses in which the victims were other judges. But since "I'm retiring in four days and I will not be a judge after April 30," Hoffman said, the assignment was "sort of the best accidental solution to this intractable problem."
Hoffman identified himself as "an unreconstructed libertarian. I don't trust the government in lots of dimensions. But there's one dimension that I not only trust the government in, but I've devoted my life to — and that's enforcing the social contract."
In Hoffman's view, Brandt broke that contract when he delivered this quote to the staff of Denver County Court Judge Andre Rudolph: "It is my thought that Judge Rudolph should be violently murdered and have his brains splattered on the faces of his children."
Said Hoffman: "I want to know who in the world thinks that that's okay. Nobody thinks that's okay, including Mr. Brandt. ... It's wrong to tell somebody that you're hoping their brains get splattered on their children, and if anybody listening is not offended by that, there's something wrong with you. You are loons if you're not offended by that. And it doesn't matter how many YouTube videos or how much press you can get by being loons. You're still loons, and the widespread dissemination of lunacy does not change the fact that it's lunacy."
At that point, Hoffman shattered the suspense. "Mr. Brandt richly deserves the penitentiary, and I'm going to send him to the penitentiary," he said — not that he liked having to do so. "Only a psychopath would get joy out of inflicting the kind of pain I'm about to inflict on you," Hoffman continued, "and I get no joy from it."
The hammer seemed about to come down — but suddenly, Hoffman allowed himself an aside. He revealed that over the weekend, he'd fantasized about giving Brandt probation on the condition that "he goes three rounds with Judge Rudolph," during which his victim would be able to "pound you into the canvas. But I can't do everything I want to do. I'm bounded by the law, and bounded by the social contract."
Nonetheless, Hoffman didn't give Brandt the maximum. Instead, the judge sentenced him to four years on each of the three counts to which he'd pleaded guilty, and ordered that they run consecutively, adding up to twelve years total, minus 85 days previously served. Brandt also received a two-year parole.
Shortly thereafter, Brandt backers, who'd exhibited decorum up to that point, unmuted themselves and spoke out. Among their comments: "Stay strong, Eric!," "We love you, Eric," and "Stay strong, brother." There were also a couple directed at the court: "You should be ashamed of yourselves" and "Damn it!"
Click to read Eric Brandt's Denver arrest affidavit.
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